There’s a bird perched on my head, and I don’t mean a chirpy little sparrow or a wispy hummingbird. I’m referring to a 4-year-old Harris’ Hawk named TJ, and he smells of raw meat.
As TJ calmly repositions his long yellow talons, perfectly at home atop his cranial roost, I pause for a moment to reflect upon how my day has taken this “Snow-White-meets-Alfred-Hitchcock’s-‘The-Birds’” turn of events.
Flash back to a few short hours ago. I’ve just touched down at western Ireland’s Shannon Airport, and soon I’m settled in my digs for the next few days: Dromoland Castle, a five-star, 16th century turreted citadel on 450 acres, encompassing a lake, walled gardens, woodlands and an 18-hole championship golf course.
A vermilion carpet unfurls across the lobby, where two suits of armor glint in the light cast by crystal chandeliers. Wandering deeper into its recesses, I discover stained-glass windows, coffered ceilings, crackling fireplaces and a cozy bar. My room, furnished with a plump couch, desk, wardrobe and two double beds, offers bucolic views over the lawn towards a Grecian-style gazebo.
So far, so fabulous. But then, you would expect nothing less from the ancestral home of the descendants of an 11th century Irish king, which has welcomed such high-profile guests as Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Bono, Jack Nicholson and Richard Branson during the half-century it’s served as a hotel.
Things only improve with a massage at the spa. Then I meet TJ.
He’s one of the fine feathered friends who accompany visitors on a Hawk Walk run by the Dromoland School of Falconry. His handler is an affable chap named Jim Hennigar, who comes equipped with a bagful of raw meat and a bottomless repertoire of puns.
“He’s got eyes like a hawk,” Hennigar quips as he sends TJ into Dromoland’s trees with a flick of his wrist, then demonstrates how the bird would swoop back down to snatch a tiny piece of meat off his thick leather glove.
Next, it’s my turn to try, armed with meat and an outstretched glove. Surprisingly, having a beady-eyed bird of prey diving toward me in a fluttery whoosh isn’t all that frightening. It’s only when TJ starts to inch his way up my arm, eventually settling on my scalp, that things get hairy (ahem).
Fortunately, his handler has no problem coaxing him away. TJ is, after all, a professional — so well-trained that Hennigar employed him as “ring bearer” when he got married on the estate a few years ago.
Coincidentally, Hennigar actually met his bride on a Hawk Walk. “It was love at first flight,” he explains with a cheeky grin as he leads me through the woods to the falconry center. There, he introduces me to Pickles, a dark-breasted barn own with an uncanny resemblance to Voldemort, and Alvin, a big fluffy Bengal Eagle Owl.
“It’s easy to remember his name,” Hennigar says, with a gleam in his eye, “because Alvin likes to eat chipmunks!” (He’s got a million of ’em, folks).
As it transpires, the Hawk Walk is a veritable cake walk compared to my next challenge — horse riding at Ballyhannon House, about a 10-minute drive from Dromoland Castle.
I get sweaty palms just mounting a wooden mare on a merry-go-round, and now I’m staring up the nostrils of what looks like an acre of horse. Fortunately, Ballyhannon’s John Hassett has an uncanny ability to inspire confidence, and his three-hour classes are as much about mastering fear as learning the basics of riding horseback.
So, with a great heave-ho from Hassett, I find myself in the saddle of the reassuringly named “Hector the Protector.” “You’ve already done the two most important things: You showed up, and you got up,” Hassett says encouragingly.
He then leads my companions and me through breathing, relaxation and posture exercises, and more unusually, he asks us to close our eyes and focus on the mood and the movement of the horse beneath us. “Now tune into your own mood, energy level, character and temperament, which is how your horse sees you,” he says, explaining that they connect on a very primal level.
“Imagine that you come home and you’re in bad form, and you bang your keys on the table,” he says. “Your husband or whoever knows you’re in bad form, you know that they know, and maybe they even know why, but no one has said a word. That’s how horses communicate. The horse figures out what you’re thinking before you know you’re thinking it.”
Thus, before we issue a verbal command, he suggests that we “ask with your mind” and envision our steed obeying. “They really want to do what you say,” he insists. “We’re physically inferior, but it’s got nothing to do with strength. If it did, we’d be wearing the saddles.”
Thanks to this jolly Zen horse whisperer, by the time we clip-clop out of the barn for a ride through the countryside, I feel as at home aboard Hector as TJ was atop my head. (It helps, of course, that Hector is moving at the speed of an arthritic tortoise.)
I doubt I’ll be ditching my day job to become a jockey or falconer anytime soon, but I’m infinitely inspired by the cheerful, unflappable demeanor of the folks I’ve met on this journey, who seem so at home with this land and its beasts.
The next time I’m in Ireland, maybe I’ll try my hand at lion taming. It seems a natural progression.
IF YOU GO
Dromoland Castle is nine miles from Shannon Airport. Castle rooms (www.dromoland.ie) from $219. Alternatively, stay at the three-star The Inn at Dromoland (www.theinnatdromoland.ie), which boasts a lively gastro pub and is connected to the castle by a private road, from $81.
Ballyhannon House equestrian center, www.ballyhannonhouse.com.